When You’re 140 Keystrokes Away From a Corporate Crisis

Written by Harald Simons

If you are a corporate leader of a multinational company today, and aim to protect your reputation for the long term, you need to ask yourself two questions: Are we nimble, and are we quick? A little less fairy-tale and a lot more true: Are we properly organized, and can we respond in time when faced with a crisis? If you still rely on manuals that are over six months old, both questions are answered: No and no.

You are, in fact, well advised to throw them out. The rise and acceleration of social media have made them almost useless.

The fundamental reality is that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs jointly—as they all are interconnected—make up the largest and fastest growing platform for social interaction the world has ever witnessed. Millions of citizen journalists roam society every day, with phone cameras and Internet access at the ready. They capture and instantly transmit around the world what they witness—or think they witness. They pass along unverified “news flashes” from acquaintances and even people they don’t know. Their tweets and posts become stories, alongside news from more established sources. These reports, unregulated and uncorroborated as they are, can create irreversible damage when inaccurate and left unaddressed.

Communication takes place at the speed it takes to type 140 characters, and your audience can literally begin responding and compounding the situation within minutes. Previously proven company crisis plans that fail to account for this velocity change are not only worthless, they are dangerous. Corporate leaders learn quickly there is nowhere to hide and no time to get organized.

As the ultimate unplanned activity, crises in social media time don’t lend themselves to conventional “command and control” management practices.  Those working in a multinational environment can’t wait for executives to wake up and get organized on the other side of the planet. They need in-country management to be first-responders and seize control.  Without this kind of network and preparation, you may be condemning your company to a long and painful slog through weeks, months, even years of reputational assaults.

While many crises start on social media, crisis communications is not, as many incorrectly assume, about the media. Too many corporate leaders still get distracted, or even overwhelmed by the pressure from media to respond. That means making sure you reach out to the most important stakeholders first—it may be your bankers, your suppliers, your retail network. Media cannot be ignored, and rapid engagement with the blame game unfolding online and elsewhere remains imperative. But go direct to stakeholders and connect with those relatively few people who matter most for your future. Also work with stakeholders who have an interest and the capability to amplify your message.

No crisis is the same and no manual can capture a one-size-fits-all solution. Only a well-detailed and rapid crisis response will ultimately leave your stakeholders with a favorable impression and renewed confidence in your affected company.

So be nimble and be quick, and make sure you’re jumping over the correct candlestick.


Harald Simons specializes in crisis management and reputation recovery, providing counsel on areas such as natural disasters, environmental cleanups, hostile takeovers, labor disputes or product defects. He has worked with companies from a wide range of sectors, from agriculture to utilities, chemicals to finance. Among his previous roles, Simons held a variety of senior-level positions at Dutch international agencies and served as the global director of communications at Ericsson.